An uninspired and seemingly unneeded 'Romeo'

Posted: April 22, 2010

"For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo." In more ways than one. Woe, that is.

This production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, a joint venture of the Acting Company and the Guthrie Theater, has been touring since early January, and Philadelphia's Annenberg Center is the 26th and final stop.

It must be murder to keep up a schedule like that - a few days here, a few days there - so maybe that's why this production is so lifeless.

Or maybe it's so flat because the acting is so broad and illustrative, and nearly every rhyme is punched: There is hardly a moment when you feel these are human beings, feeling intense emotions, speaking from their hearts and minds. These are actors, speaking from a script.

Romeo (Sonny Valicenti) has moments of charm; Juliet (Laura Esposito) doesn't - there is nothing girlish about her, and, in fact, she is frequently unintelligible, unlike her mother (Christine Weber), who is frequently inaudible.

Friar Laurence (Raymond L. Chapman) is consistently good; as Mercutio, William Sturdivant hams it up stylishly and shamelessly, playing to the kids (who were not in the audience) for whom this show clearly was intended.

Visually, the production offers nothing to look at; the set is a brick wall with an awkward stairway to a little balcony (although Juliet's bedroom inexplicably moves downstairs later on). The costumes are, also inexplicably, Edwardian.

More inexplicability: The prologue, announcing that we are "in fair Verona," is performed by the entire company in raincoats, holding umbrellas. There is no mention or sign of rain afterward.

The Acting Company was formed in 1972 to fulfill a particular and noble mission: to bring classical productions "into communities across America, particularly those where live performance and theater arts education is limited or nonexistent."

So by what stretch of imagination would the Philadelphia region (where there are more than 40 professional theater companies) qualify as a needy location? And to bring it to the performing arts center of one of the nation's great universities, where I bet they teach a course or two in Shakespeare? With a bunch of other universities with major theater programs a bus or subway ride away?

At least a third of the audience left at intermission on opening night. Smart.

Romeo and Juliet

The Acting Company and the Guthrie Theater at the Zellerbach Theatre, Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St. Through Saturday. Tickets $20-$55. Information: www.annenbergcenter.org or 215-898-3900.

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